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This information is for clinical and non-clinical professionals working in immunisation or cervical health. It covers key facts about HPV and how to answer some commonly asked questions.
On this page:
There are over 200 types of HPV. Many types are harmless, causing no problems or non-serious conditions such as genital warts. These types are called low-risk HPV.
Around 13 types of HPV are linked to some cancers, including cervical cancer. These types are called high-risk HPV.
There is no cure for HPV. In 9 in 10 (90%) people, the immune system will naturally clear HPV from the body within 2 years.
If your patient smokes, you can suggest that trying to stop smoking can help. This is because smoking can damage their immune system and make it harder to get rid of the virus. If you suggest this, make sure to direct them to NHS support for stopping smoking.
High-risk types of HPV start to attack basal cells in the lining of cervix. In most cases, the body’s immune system will naturally get rid of HPV before it progresses further.
Sometimes the DNA of the virus works its way into cell DNA and can change the way cells work. We call these cell changes.
Cell changes are not cervical cancer, but they do need to be monitored or treated to make sure they don’t progress. Sometimes cell changes will go back to normal by themselves.
In some cases, the cell changes may start to grow out of control and eventually lead to a cancerous tumour. This usually takes 15 to 20 years in healthy patients. In patients with weakened immune systems, it can happen more quickly.
HPV is far more common than cervical cancer, showing that HPV only leads to cervical cancer in a small minority of those infected. But cervical cancer is a risk for every woman and person with a cervix who has HPV, so it’s important for your patients to understand the connection.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is focused on cervical health, which means we cannot offer support or guidance about other HPV-related conditions or cancers.
Here are some organisations who may be able to support your patients with these queries:
Using condoms or dental dams offer some protection. But HPV is passed on easily through skin-to-skin contact. Condoms don’t cover all the skin around the genitals, so they don’t give full protection. And HPV isn’t just passed on through penetrative sex. Any intimate sexual contact can pass on HPV.
Very. Most sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives, usually without realising. It’s also possible to be infected repeatedly. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stigma around HPV so patients are often embarrassed if they’re told they have it. It can be helpful to explain the virus is so common and spreads so easily, it’s entirely possible to catch HPV from a single intimate episode. In fact, the most common time to contract it is shortly after becoming sexually active for the first time.
HPV is usually passed on through skin-to-skin contact. For HPV that affects the genitals, this normally means vaginal, oral or anal sex. The virus can also be passed on through touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys, although it’s less common.
Patients may ask whether they can catch the virus through objects and materials – such as towels and surgical instruments. While we know it can live for a short time (up to 24 hours) on an uncleaned surface, like a sex toy, this would be very rare. There is no evidence that you can get HPV from swimming pools or toilets.
It’s usually tested for as part of routine cervical screening. In the past, cervical screening was based around cytology, looking for abnormal cell changes. But now, England, Scotland and Wales have all replaced this with primary screening for HPV. Only cell samples that are positive for HPV are sent on for cytology. There’s no blood test or swab for HPV and men can’t be tested for it.
There’s no treatment for HPV itself. And it wouldn’t be necessary, as in most cases HPV doesn’t cause issues and the immune system clears it. But the problems it can sometimes cause – genital warts and cervical cell changes – can be treated.
There’s no obligation for people to tell partners and exes they’ve been diagnosed with HPV. It’s a very common virus and it usually isn’t possible to work out when someone got it. Men can’t be tested for it and there’s no treatment for it.
In most cases, HPV won’t have any harmful effects. But a diagnosis can sometimes cause problems in relationships. If someone in a long-term relationship is diagnosed, their partner may worry they’ve been unfaithful. So it can be helpful to explain to both partners that the virus can lie dormant for many years and become active again. You could offer to speak to both of them, or suggest they call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000.
Only a small minority seem vulnerable to the cancer-causing effects of HPV infection. Factors known to raise the risk include:
The only thing we know can help is quitting smoking, as it means the immune system is more likely to clear the virus.
Having a healthier lifestyle is always beneficial for general wellbeing, but we have no evidence it will help reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
Remind your patients it takes a long time for HPV to cause abnormal cell changes, and then even longer for those changes to become cancerous. Usually, this won’t happen at all. But going for regular cervical screening is the best step. It means the cervix is being monitored so if any changes appear, they can quickly be managed.
We know that HPV can be a confusing topic, which may mean your patients feel particularly anxious about a HPV result or the wait for results. It may also feel daunting for you to talk about.
You can download our guide to talking about HPV, which summarises the information on this page:
You may find it helpful to direct patients to our online patient-facing information. It includes the following web pages:
If your patients prefer to have a physical copy of information, you can download and print our PDFs about HPV:
We also have a range of support services that deal with worries about HPV on a daily basis. If you think your patients would benefit from talking with someone, you can direct them to us: